"Joe Wilkins is a writer of great power and heart, and Fall Back Down When I Die is a riveting and timely novel.” – Jess Walter, National Book Award finalist and New York Times bestselling author of Beautiful Ruins
Book List, this time. The review isn’t live yet, but, wow, it’s great:
In his first novel, short story writer, poet, and memoirist Wilkins writes of hardscrabble life on the northern Great Plains with mesmerizing power, creating characters with rich if troubled interior lives who are desperate for agency and haunted by absent fathers. Wendell and Rowdy’s slowly blossoming relationship is as lovely and breathtaking as the book’s tragic ending is inevitable and devastating. Suffused with a sense of longing, loss, and the desire for change—asking deep questions about our place in the landscape and what, if anything, we are owed—this is a remarkable and unforgettable first novel.
Book List Starred Review for Fall Back Down When I Die
Of the major pre-publication review venues, Kirkus is famously the toughest, which is why I’m so damn pleased with this *starred* review. They’ve gotten a hold of it, the root of it, and I hope others do too. Here’s the review:
A heart-rending tale of family, love, and violence in which the “failures of the nation, the failures of myth, met the failures of men.”
Poet Wilkins’ (When We Were Birds, 2016, etc.) politically charged first novel, a “sad riddle of a story,” is set primarily in 2009, in rural, poverty-stricken Eastern Montana, with the first legal wolf hunt in decades about to begin. Wilkins crafts a subtle, tightly plotted, and slowly unfolding narrative told through three characters’ points of view: Verl Newman, in first person; and his son, Wendell, and a woman named Gillian Houlton in third person. The story begins a dozen years earlier with Verl, who’s fled to the Big Dry’s cold, deep mountains after shooting and killing a man. He carries his young son Wendell’s notebook and writes to him each night: “I imagine you are hearing all kinds of lies and should hear the truth of it from your old dad who made you.” In the novel’s present day, Wendell, a down-and-out ranch hand who loves to read, takes custody of his incarcerated cousin Lacy’s 7-year-old son, Rowdy, who’s “developmentally delayed.” He grows close to the boy and wants to be the father he never had. Hardworking Gillian is assistant principal and school counselor in the small town of Colter, outside Billings. It was her husband, Kevin, an employee of the Bureau of Land Management, whom Verl killed back in the day. She’s doing what she can to help a troubled student whose stepfather leads the right-wing Bull Mountain Resistance and raise her beloved daughter, Maddy, as a single mom. Through these characters, in a prose that can hum gently, then spark like a fire, Wilkins fashions a Western fable which spirals down to a tragic end: “They’ll wear each other down to nothing…right down to sulfur, dust, and bone.”
Following in the literary roots of Montanans Jim Harrison and Rick Bass, Wilkins packs a lot of story and stylistic wallop into this gripping, outstanding novel.